William Wordsworth 

return to Descriptive Sketches

1. The enchanted spot where a man might find 'refuge from distress' and 'prepare his soul for heaven' is surely here where purple morning falls on the mountains, where water flows noisily through the woods and lies silently in the lakes. Ah yes, the Alps.

notes: curious 'nature's God', are there others?
The description by no means immediately evokes the Alps, though, with a bit of thought, one arrives there. Question, morning does not fall it rather rises, 'flakes of light' what are these? The poet states his objective: to find 'a spot of holy ground / Where from distress a refuge might be found'. The note of despondency is declared here early: the poet is not simply a holiday traveller, he is seeking a 'refuge from distress' and to 'prepare his soul for heaven', even if he doesn't know it himself.

2. notes: But even if the traveller is not fully aware of this noble objective, ie to prepare his soul for heaven, and just takes to the road in a holiday spirit, he is 'not unrecompensed': there follows a list of the recompenses: each passing wind, the waiting sod-seats at cottage doors, the beckoning spire, the forest overhead, the grass beneath his feet, the cloud that shelters him from the mid-day sun, the babbling brook, the flow of his own thoughts as he walks, sharing his meal with the needy, the moon which lights his way, the company of children, people like himself, maidens, and participation in the village dance. 

why use a positive when a double-negative will do? It certainly serves to render the thought more apparently profound. So what is the 'prouder name' the sage will give to his holiday perambulations? Pilgrimage? 'Clear current of his sympathies', but do sympathies arrange themselves like a current (of water)? Do they flow? 'Feeds the clear current of his sympathies', strange construction. 'Mid-days flaming eye', tired now probably tired then. Why does he 'call it luxury'. To be shaded from the sun at mid-day? 'heart alive like Memnon's lyre': quoting from Erasmus Darwin? Reference to the huge statues near Luxor. Memnon's lyre was reputed to emit notes of melancholy or cheerfulness depending on whether touched by the rays of the morning or evening sun. What is a 'fit of crazing care'? At all events, as a traveller, he is accepted by children, virgins and the dancing villagers, though the maidens wonder about his precedents.

3. Gallia's wastes of corn - apparently Liberty and Famine march hand in hand. We quickly arrive at the Alps.

4. Chartreuse: the monastery was disbanded in 1791 by revolutionary forces, its art treasures dispersed. Wordsworth here conflates his experience of the Chartreuse in 1790 with his knowledge of the suppression of the monastery in 1791. 'Whither is fled that Power ..... that Silence'. Sketching the effect of religion to 'awe Reason' and impose silence, a silence only broken by 'holy rites chanted in measured round'.

5. A stanza of horror, evoking the suppression of the monastery by French troops.


6. notes: this is largely a pleasant picture of Lake Como. Only the last five lines dwell on other considerations: ie the response of the traveller to 'ye lovely maidens', but the response is clearly problematic. 'Alas!', desire has been aroused and is not about to be satisfied. The traveller is subject to 'voluptuous dreams' and his 'sunk mind' dwells on 'joys that might disgrace the captive's cell' while 'slavery' shakes her 'shameless timbrel' on Como's marge. Earlier versions of the poem dwell in even greater detail on the state of sexual excitement of the 'lovely maidens'.
Those steadfast eyes, that beating breasts inspire
To throw the 'sultry ray' of young Desire;
Those lips, whose tides of fragrance come, and go,
Accordant to the cheek's unquiet glow;
Those shadowy breasts in love's soft light array'd,
And rising, by the moon of passion sway'd.
(
lines 148-155, Descriptive Sketches 1793 version)
The problem for the traveller is clearly how to satisfy the desire that has been aroused. It is this that troubles him in the midst of these idyllic (sublime and beautiful) surroundings. Difficult as these lines are, one has to doubt the generally accepted interpretation that Wordsworth suddenly goes off on a political tirade about the existence of slavery: the slavery he is talking about is slavery to the senses, to desire, and probably also the slavery of prostitution. Of course, it was difficult for middle-class English writers dominated by a morality of sexual denial to make this explicit at the time of writing, and so, nevertheless finding it impossible to ignore, Wordsworth wraps it up in ambiguity and euphemism. But it is clear that Wordsworth sees that man is more than just an intellectual groping after the infinite, and that, however strong the effect of the sublime and the beautiful, human nature contains other elements less noble.

7.  Music in a different context: that of an old man playing to his grandchildren. No danger of arousing disturbing, lascivious thoughts here. Music can therefore be used for a variety of purposes. Not a great revelation, nor a particularly original observation, but nevertheless potentially useful.

8. Locarno: town on Lake Maggiore in the Swiss Alps.

9. The poet launches on a case study of human suffering.

10. It is difficult to find acceptable images of human suffering, though, of course, it happens everywhere and at all times. Western iconography has therefore concentrated all suffering into one powerful image: the crucifixion.

11. The passions intrude once more with this fantasy on the lonely maiden awaiting her lover in her secluded cottage by the lake. She watches 'her lover's sail' approaching, the imagery being too obvious to need explanation, and then listens to the sound of the departing oar which mimics the last throes of her orgasm.

12. We are now abruptly wrenched from this mildly pornographic episode by an osprey. Wordsworth has already tried the smooth transition from music designed to encourage lascivious thoughts (the timbrel) to music designed to pacify (the old man plucking an olden tune). Now he tries a violent transition which plunges us straight into the cold water of the sublime, the 'tempestuous vapours' and 'wastes too bleak'. But the restlessness of perspective continues with the generalisations with regard to 'Contentment' and 'Independence' and 'Freedom', quickly flashing back to the image of the 'jealous chamois', seen bounding from rock to rock, starting at 'imagined sounds', and giving rise to the thought that the chamois is perhaps reacting to 'an old Swiss air' or a 'Spartan fife'. The chamois acts as more than just an emblem of freedom, it becomes freedom, as thought weaves in and out of the perceived world in a frantic dance, instantly covering the distance between Switzerland and Greece with the threadbare link of patriotism. Just so, thought interweaves the perceived world, giving meaning and, at times, allowing us to penetrate appearances to ... what stands behind, and the realisation that it is all the same. This is That, the Perceiver is the Perceived.

13. Mainly references to heroes who have died in the cause of freedom.